How Americans Respond to Idiosyncratic and Exogenous Changes in Household Wealth and Unearned Income

Abstract

We study how Americans respond to idiosyncratic and exogenous changes in household wealth and unearned income. Our analyses combine administrative data on U.S. lottery winners with an event-study design. We first examine individual and household earnings responses to these windfall gains, finding significant and sizable wealth and income effects. On average, an extra dollar of unearned income in a given period reduces household labor earnings by about 50 cents, decreases total labor taxes by 10 cents, and increases consumption by 60 cents. These effects are heterogeneous across the income distribution, with households in higher quartiles of the income distribution reducing their earnings by a larger amount. Next, we examine margins of adjustment other than earnings and, in the course of doing so, address a number of important economic questions about how additional wealth or unearned income affect retirement decisions and labor market dynamics, family formation and dissolution, entrepreneurship and self-employment, and geographic mobility and neighborhood choice. Lastly, we carefully compare our findings to those reported in existing lottery studies. This comparison reveals that existing U.S. studies substantially underestimate wealth and income effects because they use measures that understate earnings responses and overstate wealth changes associated with lottery wins.

Publication
Revised and Resubmitted Quarterly Journal of Economics